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Can Teachers Be Too Territorial with the Curriculum They Teach?

| Heather Wolpert-G...

High school teachers can be so turfy. Which was one of the reasons why I received an email earlier today concerned about my curriculum for the class I'm teaching at summer school camp.

In a nutshell, I've been given leave to teach whatever I want as an enrichment, tuition-based class this summer for middle schoolers. So I've chosen Film Appreciation. We've been studying cinematic terms, reading selections from books that have become movies, and studying the similarities between the narratives we write in school and the narratives that are produced for the screen. We'll then use these films as a basis for reviewing literary analysis as a writing form.

Here are some examples from the class curriculum:

  • Analyzing Danny Elfman's contributions to music scores as we watch clips from Beetlejuice, tracking how the music propels the narrative.
  • Discussing creative license by reading the first paragraph of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe which only mentions in one sentence that the children were sent to the country during the war, and then looking at the first few minutes of the recent movie which begins during the Blitz in London.
  • Discussing the differences between directors and cinematographers, reading the opening selection of Shoeless Joe, drawing their idea of Iowa, and watching scenes from Field of Dreams later on.
  • Reading The Outsiders (I have a class set) and doing a comparison with the movie.
  • Watching scenes from Emma and Clueless, Pride and Prejudice and from the Bollywood-esque Bride and Prejudice.
  • Discovering the power of sound effects and sound effects editing by looking at those quick power-chess scenes in Searching for Bobby Fisher.
  • Interviewing my father, who wrote the movie version of The Count of Monte Cristo. He'll talk about what it takes to write a screenplay from a classic book.

Shakespeare in Middle School

And, since he's the most often used screenwriter of all time, we're going to be reading scenes from Shakespeare (the study of the Renaissance being a seventh grade history standard, by the way), and looking at different versions of scenes from some of the greatest performances. We'll watch the very end of Shakespeare in Love to see what the Old Globe Theater looked like. We'll be looking at the crane shot from the end of Branagh's Henry V to see the power of the single shot. We'll be comparing various scenes from versions of Romeo and Juliet.

Which brings me to the email I received from a parent whose student is in my class. She explained that the kid loved the course, but she was concerned how the high school would react if they knew I was talking about Romeo and Juliet.

So that got me thinking about our purpose as teachers. And as I thought, I found myself getting more and more indignant about curriculum turfiness. Does it really benefit the learner?

Here is an excerpt of my response:

Thank you so much for your concern...Yes, I am reading excerpts and comparing them to a movie. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, we will also be acting out a number of the scenes from the play as well... I deeply believe that waiting until high school to discover Shakespeare does a disservice to our students. Considering Romeo and Juliet are middle schoolers and Shakespeare is a part of the seventh grade history curriculum, it is very appropriate to be studying it.

There's another way to think about this. Books that kids discover early on in a positive way are books they will be eager to explore again and again in a deeper way each time. Even while reading our favorite books, we do not comprehend every theme and chewy piece of dialogue on the first reading. It takes loving it the first time and diving in again and again to pull back the layers of true passion for a book or an author. If anything, I believe that tackling it now, three years prior to when the student will see it again, will only serve to help his enthusiasm later.

I realize that some themes will get lost on these kids, but they also could end up seeing it through other eyes than they will as their high school selves. This book sits in my classroom library and every year multiple kids discover it. We can't segregate the classics based on a district's curriculum choices; it would never allow us to differentiate for each child's interests and levels...Think of my class as an introduction to these classics, and then he gets to excitedly await to dive into them deeper years from now.

Re-Reading and Re-Teaching

I know I took a stand here and might take some heat. But there is such shortsightedness regarding classic literature in education. We loop our history curriculum over and over, our math and science curriculum over and over.

So why do language arts teachers get so territorial? By tenth grade will students honestly think that Romeo and Juliet go off on some romantic honeymoon, and I'm going to bust the ending for them?

Reading and writing can't be taught in isolation. We must all be building on the skills, looping as well, introducing and re-reading. Every teacher brings something new to the conversation, just as every student brings a new dimension of understanding with every year of experience lived.

We are supporting one another in our teachings, for just one teacher does not a successful student make. Each student has a team of teachers behind him.

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Comments (7)

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Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night

It's all about communication...

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...and philosophical flexibility. I know that newness is a strategy for many teachers, but revisiting should be a greater master. I know, for instance, that our 7th grade team was frustrated for a moment when we realized that the 6th grade team was having the students read "Thank You, Ma'm" which is a part of our textbook and has been in our curriculum for a while now.

It became quite a battle until one of our numbers, a member of the Writing Project, reminded the 7th grade team that revisiting at a deeper level holds greater power than surprise of plot. Our 6th grade team was stubborn not to work with us. The fact is that they really didn't want to find another story that fit their needs. Nevertheless, it is an old argument, and one that has become null and void as our 7th grade group consistently and constantly collaborates to make their lessons fresh and new and deep in thought from year to year.

It is a shame that we think of ourselves as "teams" and not as a whole department. We are actually working on that. As a new department chair, in fact, it has become a goal to articulate more efficiently and more neighborly. But there is past history that can't easily be moved on from. Nevertheless, we all try.

The bottom line is that change in philosophy can't be thrust on others. The classroom teachers either see the power of being flexible or they don't. Some of the 6th grade teachers won't budge, not wanting to do more work, and some of the 7th grade teachers won't stop growling, even years later.

As a department chair, it's my job to help us move on so that all of our curriculum strands and abilities feed into one another. And hopefully, with a few others buying into the philosophy, one by one we can bring our department to a more flexible place that can allow for more rich revisiting.

Thanks so much for your comments, and I look forward to reading more from my fellow Edutopians.

-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

So True

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The same level of activities is definitely more of an issue. I totally agree. Most of the time, after the "'I've already don that" comment, we dive into the book and suddenly the reader is not so bored. Why? He is seeing it in a new light. Plus, we are "taking it to a deeper level of understanding" (Love that line)  with new activities. Nothing to it, but to do it.Gaetan

Readdressing curriculum

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We have a similar situation in science where students have seen topics before in previous grades. Students come in saying they learned this before, but we take it to a deeper level of understanding than they had learned in the past. I don't feel that complaints of "I've read that before" are valid. If you are doing the same level of activities as a few grade levels down, that is more of an issue than reading the same book.

restricting the of using certain material for classes

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Yes, using certain plays, books, screenplays, or movies more than once in the curriculum might prompt the occassional, "I've already studied that," comment from students, but let's be honest, the real reason for the protest against re-use of creative works is more likely to be the protesters not wanting to be troubled to change their syllabi. There is some validity to this argument, but any controversy could be avoided by simple communication and cooperation between the instructors. Coordination of what is covered and taught is possible albeit with a little effort. Sharing of syllabi and a phone conversation or emails exhanged with cc's to the academic chair could solve any problems and maximize the learning opportunities for students. Let's work together to get a little bit outside of our comfort zones and look to sharing ideas and approaches with our colleagues to help keep each other fresh and sharp.

Coordinator, Office of Library Information Services

Examples of Shakespeare in Middle School

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Your thoughts are on target with regard to teachers as teams in the learning process.  See the examples of the collaboration among teachers and libriarians in order to engage students in inquiry and research to support their study of Shakespeare in the middle grades.  Grade 6 - Meet Mr. Shakespeare at http://www.bcps.org/offices/lis/models/meetmrs/index.html; Grade 7 -  Setting the Stage:  The Taming of the Shrew at http://www.bcps.org/offices/lis/models/setstage/index.html; and, Grade 8, What's in a Play? A Midsummer Night's Dream at http://www.bcps.org/offices/lis/models/Shakespeare/index.html.  All of these Online Research Models (ORMs) are the product of team and collaborative curriculum writing.  For a complete listing of ORMs for elementary students go to http://www.bcps.org/offices/lis/models/elem.html; for middle school students go to http://www.bcps.org/offices/lis/models/middle.html; and for high school students go to http://www.bcps.org/offices/lis/models/highcore.html.   As you will deduct, the "common thread" is information literacy woven in content standards. 

Theatre Ed Teacher-Prep at Kean University, New Jersey

A resource and a comment

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For your own research, I'm recommending Linda Cahir's Literature into Film, if you haven't stumbled across it yet.I actually think we get more territorial about what we don't teach-- the areas that scare us into avoiding certain content in the curriculum.  More effort is spent keeping things OUT than articulating why we keep some things IN.But I do agree with your points: we don't do a good enough job teaching the value of revisiting.  It's a 21st century skill-- to have the patience and reverence for retracing/repeating our steps in search of new, more stimulating divergences...

Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

Agreed

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Believe it or not, we get the same stuff from the fifth grade. We (all third and fourth grade teachers) just received an email with a book list that is "off limits" for us to use in the classroom.  I guess the fifth grade teachers were getting too many comments like," I've already read the book."  Ok, so how come the fifth grade gets special banning permission?  Not sure.  I get students who say the same thing. Oh well. Read another book or read it again. With age comes new experiences, which leads to new discoveries when reading a book multiple times.  I don't get it. Good point with all of the other subjects spiraling.  Why not English?  Why not the subject that lends to a more free-thinking, creative environment that is bound to flex and change with experience?  DOn't let them grind you down, Heather.Gaetan

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